Stephen Alter remembers an era when transcontinental travel meant ships, horses and family time
Eighty years ago, in 1933, my father travelled home to America for the first time in his life. Born in Srinagar, Kashmir, Bob Alter or “Bobby”, as he was known in those days, was the youngest of four brothers. His parents, Martha and Emmet Alter, came to India as missionaries in 1916. They lived and worked in Sialkot, Abbottabad and Rawalpindi, as well as the hill station Mussoorie, which is now our family home. But for us “home” is an ambiguous word, at best. We use it freely despite the uncertainties it evokes, wound up inside a ball of nostalgic sentiments, tangled identities and a lost sense of direction. Of course, as a young boy, my father didn’t care about these things. He was setting off on an exciting adventure, through lands he’d never seen before, to destinations he’d only heard his parents speak about—New York, Boston. America sounded as exotic and foreign as Baghdad, Jerusalem, Famagusta or Venice.
Today, we travel nonstop from India to the United States in 15 hours, less than half the time it took my father and the rest of his family to make their way by train to Karachi. From there they caught a ship to Basra, where the Euphrates empties into the Persian Gulf. Emmet and the two older boys, Jim and Dave, saved a hundred rupees by travelling as deck passengers, while Martha, Bobby and his brother Joe occupied a second-class cabin. Leaving Basra they carried on upriver by train to Hillah, where they visited the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, as well as the mosque at Karbala.
It was September and temperatures rose above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the day. For the journey across the desert from Baghdad to Damascus, they hired a car. My father sat on his mother’s lap for twenty-four hours as the family squeezed into the open vehicle, along with all their luggage. In those days there was no road between Iraq and Syria. They simply drove across open miles of sand, travelling in a convoy of cars and buses to make sure nobody got lost. From Damascus they continued overland through Trans-Jordan to Palestine, visiting the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Despite her Christian faith, the Holy Land brought out my grandmother’s Presbyterian distaste for iconography and orthodox rituals. Their arrival in Jerusalem coincided with a visit by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, whom my grandfather photographed getting into his Rolls Royce. Heading north through Haifa, they entered Lebanon and took several boats to Cyprus, Istanbul, Athens, Corinth, Pompeii (where the boys scrambled into the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius), then finally Venice.
Years later, my father wrote about the journey: “My clearest memories are probably of our time in Venice. Pictures of St Mark’s Square, of pigeons by the thousands, of inside St Mark’s Cathedral, trips along the canals and the glass factory . . . One memory is particularly vivid, though there is no picture to show for it. We were up in the top of the Campanile in St Mark’s Square . . . looking out over the city. We were watching an airplane circling in the distance when suddenly one of the wings broke off and we saw it fall and crash.”
Hurrying across Italy because the exchange rate was against them, they passed through Rome on their way to Genoa. After paying respects at the statue of Christopher Columbus, they boarded a steamship, the USS President Polk of the Dollar Line, on which they crossed the Atlantic to New York.
Emmet Alter, my grandfather, was an avid photographer. He took thousands of pictures of India and recorded the sights along their journey to America in 1933. In many of the photographs of monuments and landscapes, he posed his sons in the foreground to provide scale and perspective. He also had a fascination for motor cars and a number of pictures include vehicles in which they travelled. Back in India, he had owned a Model A Ford in which the family toured the country. My father inherited his father’s love of travel and automobiles (always in need of repair), as well as a keen interest in photography. Just before he died in 2011, Dad completed a project he had worked on for almost a decade: scanning and digitising more than eighty rolls of his father’s 35mm negatives. Untouched for half a century, they were gummed up and stuck together like celluloid fossils. Immersing each roll in water, my father watched the film unspooling in the sink. He wasn’t sure if the images had been destroyed, but when he held them up to the light, they immediately took him back to his childhood journeys.
In a set of notes that he wrote to accompany the digitised prints, he recalled: “These pictures were taken on a new, state-of-the-art German Leica camera my father bought around the time we moved as a family from Abbottabad to Mussoorie in 1932. I remember him using one of our bathrooms in the Boys’ Hostel at Woodstock School where we were living as his processing lab. He developed his own negatives and had a Leica enlarger . . . Though time has taken its toll, it is remarkable how many of the pictures have come out as well as they have. For me, of course, these are vivid reminders of things I had seen and experienced with my family as a boy. Opening them up, day after day, in the scanning process has been an exciting experience, recalling, as it were, a raft of old and mostly otherwise forgotten memories.”
My grandmother, Martha, compiled a scrapbook of the journey with postcards, photographs and other souvenirs, including an olive leaf from the Garden of Gethsemane. She also wrote weekly letters to her mother and sister back in America, from the day of her arrival in India until my grand parents’ retirement in 1951. These letters, stored in shoeboxes, were later edited by my parents and published as a book for family and friends. Martha’s words and Emmet’s pictures, along with my father’s notes, provide an evocative record of a bygone era before the Middle East was torn apart by war, when journeys were undertaken at a leisurely pace and tourism was still an adventure.
Extracts from Martha Payne Alter’s letters:*
September 7, 1933
“We landed in Basra on Thursday, the seventh, and went on up to Ur, getting there late Friday morning, as the wind was blowing sand on the tracks and the driver had to go slowly. There was such a strong hot wind blowing the sand so much that we could see only a short distance from us, and the only thing we could do was to close ourselves up in the rest house all day and sleep. Fortunately, there were electric fans . . . The ride from Ur to Hillah was from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm and was the worst experience of all. It was through practically nothing but desert. We drank water incessantly, ate watermelon, bought lemonade and did everything we could to keep cool but to no avail. With all our drinking water, water, water, my lips were so parched and my tongue so dry, when we arrived in Hillah, I actually talked thick. Miss Strong, a missionary there, was at the station to meet us and took us to her home, which as a real haven of rest. She had ice-cream all ready and lots of hot tea and drinking water. After tea we felt like new people and got cleaned up for dinner. We slept on the roof and had the best sleep. The next day we spent with the Edwards family, who also live in Hillah. The boys had such a good time with their children. They served us ice-cream twice, much to the joy of the Alter family…
We left Baghdad to cross the desert Thursday morning. We left there about 6:00 am, stopped at Ramadi for customs and arrived at the Rutba Wells at 5:30 pm. There were two airplanes there when we arrived and we soon learned that the body of the dead King Faisal was on one of them. Six of his ministers spent the night in the little hotel there, and they took the body on to Baghdad early the next morning . . . We and our luggage were in a six-passenger Nash and we had a good driver and no motor trouble all the way. We drove all night and were in Damascus by 7:30 in the morning.”
October 1, 1933
“Saturday, we drove down to Jerusalem—I suppose I should say up when altitude is considered. The ride first brought us through the Valley of Esdraelon, a most fertile valley where there are now a number of Jewish settlements. To our left was Mount Tabor and farther on Mt Gilboa. Later we passed Shechem, Mount Ebal, Mount Gerazin, Jacob’s Well, Samaria, Bethel and many historical spots. The topography of the country has not changed, but Jerusalem, with a church on almost every spot and crosses and images, and stones to be kissed, etc, etc, is more than a disappointment.”
* Extracted from Letters from India to America, 1916–1951. Martha Payne Alter. Edited by Ellen and Bob Alter, 2006.
Stephen Alter is a Mussoorie-based author who has written 16 books. He has taught creative writing for 18 years and is the founding director of Mussoorie Writers. His most recent book, The Rataband Betrayal, is a crime thriller set in the Himalayas.